The right of return is no longer linked exclusively to the Palestinian issue, but has also become linked for several years to the Iraqi issue, given the large-scale migration of Sunni Iraqis from Baghdad due to the civil war.1 Today, we hear talk about protecting the right of return to their homeland of Syrian migrants, displaced due to the war in the country, the brutality of the Assad regime and terrorism.
In light of the current experiences and developments in Syria, the possibility of achieving the right of return for as many as 7 million displaced persons is little better than the possibility of achieving it for the Palestinians. Indeed, we are witnessing in Syria a process of systematic "social engineering" along sectarian lines. This will result in a large number of Syrians losing their property and homes, making it even harder for them to return to their country.
These facts were analysed by fellow Syrian writer and researcher Salam Kawakibi at a forum held to launch an important report by the Carnegie Middle East Studies Centre — "Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home" — held last week in Amman. Kawakibi provided details of important data, including the fact that a large percentage of homes demolished in Aleppo and other cities were knocked down based on ownership however many had been settled by Syrians who had built them illegally. The displaced owners lost their right to the land once the structures built thereon were levelled. This has happened a lot.
The seizure of properties and the emergence of mafia-like groups which buy them at low prices and sell them for a profit to other people based on their sectarian affiliation is a common occurrence in Syria today. This social engineering is backed by the tenth decree issued by President Bashar Al-Assad this month, which stipulates the state's right to reorganisation. It allows the establishment of one or more regulatory zones within the general organisational chart of the administrative units in which private property is registered in the land records. This registration is final once the 30-day appeal period is over.
According to the decree, everyone is required to re-register their real estate and agricultural land. Those who do not do so within the allotted timeframe lose their ownership rights. A family member is permitted to register the property on behalf of the owner, but these hazy measures have caused panic amongst migrants, who are afraid of losing their properties. This fear has been exploited by the aforementioned mafias. Syrian opposition activists and lawyers have warned that this is an illegal way of changing the ownership of properties with its obvious social engineering.
According to the report, most refugees will require the situation to be safe and secure in Syria before they will return home. This, they believe, will not be possible without a political transition and a transitional justice system that will ensure that there will be no "silent war" based upon revenge attacks. These conditions do not seem attainable, at least in the near future, which means that the process of demographic change and reorganisation will continue in the refugees' absence.
The Syrian regime does not seem to have a problem with the refugees not returning. In fact, many Assad supporters see refugees as traitors and enemies of the state, a view reinforced by the President and his media outlets over the past few years. Kawakibi revealed the leaked details of a meeting between the Syrian leader and his ambassadors during which Assad apparently said, "Although there are about 7 million displaced Syrians and hundreds of thousands were killed, at the end of the day, we gained a homogenous society."
It seems that the issue of asylum and talk of the right of return will become a topic for future discussion given the social, cultural and political consequences of the home and host countries. This is also due to the many psychosocial, social and cultural effects, especially regarding future generations, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, for example, all of which suffer from civil wars that have sectarian, regional or geopolitical causes.
This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 22 April 2018
1For further details, see Deborah Amos's book Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.